The web is a strange and wonderful place. For the record—and likely not to anyone’s surprise—I love it. It’s almost hard to remember how it was, before we had this (rather amazing) ability to access and exchange ideas and information. Yesterday, I thought back to when I was researching Masters programs abroad (in the early ‘90s). The only way to access such information was to find a book listing universities, and then send out letters requesting calendars. This is how things worked, a scant 20 years ago.
There’s also a very weird side of the web, and it has a lot to do with anonymity. I’ll just skip the standard niceties, and get right to the point: some people act like dicks when they think they won’t get caught. On the web, this manifests itself in a few different ways, be they completely anonymous insults, snarky banter, or web-vandalism (e.g. defamation, attacks on digital property, et cetera).
The weirdest part with these situations is that you never really know who’s behind them. It might be some random jerk, or, just some loud-mouthed hack (there seem to be a few of those). On one or two occasions, I’ve learned the person behind such silliness was in fact a “friend.” Thankfully, this last case has only popped up a couple of times, but it sure was disappointing.
Recently, one of my colleagues on the web fell victim to a fellow intent on damaging her online reputation. She got in touch with me for suggestions on how to address the situation. I did my best, but her particular problem wasn’t one I could shine much light upon. It did, however, lead me to look at some of the ways we’ve dealt with such concerns, here at smashLAB.
Engage Them in Discussion
This post began with me talking about people sometimes acting like dicks under the guise of anonymity. You’ll note that I used the word act, rather than the word are. This was deliberate, as I believe most to be generally decent, and that it’s the situation that brings out the best or worst in someone.
Admittedly, I say things on this blog that can incite discussion. Some of the feedback occurs here. Additionally, comment threads pop up in other online communities. I try to keep abreast of this, largely out of curiosity: I want to know what people think about these posts. For the most part, I enjoy this discussion. It is why I spend a notable part of my working time writing these (not very well paying) posts. It’s worth noting that I also encounter some comments that are mean-spirited, or simply ill-informed.
Depending on the case, I often take a moment to respond to inflammatory comments directly. (Please note that I’m not talking about critical responses—those I quite appreciate.) If they seem to be from reasonably intelligent people, I try to better understand the disconnect between what I’m trying to get across, and how they’re reading my words. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how this tends to play out. On a number of occasions, I’ve found myself getting to really know these people and sharing personal emails with them. In these instances, I’ve sometimes learned that I had just communicated poorly, or, that my words were misinterpreted. Taking some time to engage these parties has often clarified a situation and even established new friendships.
Have Fun With Them
Sometimes a dick is just a dick. These are the sorts of folks who leave phony names or mask their identities, while saying notably mean things. The worst of these comments never make it to this blog, but rather, afford me a unique pleasure, as I hit the Delete button. The ugliest have brought my kids into the discussion (cue up the closing moments of “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” in which they travel across the land, exerting their own form of payback on such web-based douchebags).
These groups: the snide, mean, or dim-witted, afford me a unique opportunity to have some easy fun. (This is often made more enjoyable, by the fact that these folks often can’t spell, or construct a coherent argument.) If you run into such an individual, I encourage you to treat it as an invitation to channel “your inner asshole.”
These folks come in all shapes and sizes: Ones who send emails (related to Design Can Change) filled with nasty words, telling me that global warming is a complete hoax; Others who make deeply personal accusations; And a batch of folks who resort to rather silly name calling. I have to stress that none of these people are your enemy. Instead, they are a blessing in disguise. How often are you encouraged to completely take the piss out of someone? Go for it… it doesn’t get much better! ;-)
I should also note that I sometimes act too quickly, and respond in an overly harsh fashion to people who don’t deserve such snide jeers. At such times I have proven myself to also be a bit of a dick. (I do try to own such “dick-ish-ness” and apologize for it.)
Do Your Research
One of the nicest parts about the web is that it leaves options for tracing back the party involved in an online activity. You just need a handy fellow like @shelkie to help with a little light sleuth-work. Sometimes you don’t even need that. Many actions on the web leave digital “trails” that can be used to lead back to the originator. Sure, this isn’t the best use of time for a busy person, but, it can prove perversely gratifying.
Part of the thrill in doing this, is in removing the veil that some hide behind. For example, it was rather amusing to learn that one of the people who anonymously questioned my criticism of an Apple campaign worked at the ad agency that created that campaign. Or, there was the car dealership I had a less than desirable experience with. That post was riddled with strange, anonymous comments that just felt like shilling, months after the post had largely gone dormant. All indicators pointed to the dealership planting the notes, thinking no one would question the legitimacy of these comments.
My favorite example is of a “friend” who has emailed me repeatedly, wanting to know why we weren’t connected on social networks. This is an interesting case, in that he’s the kind of fellow that has only been friendly and complimentary in person. Online, and while I’ve been out of the room, I’ve learned that he’s been doing his best to soil our agency’s name. These days I just ignore his emails, but, I am unlikely to ever believe that he’s one who can be trusted. (Ahh… the insight a simple IP address can provide.)
As I write this sort of thing, I realize that I may very well seem like a petty and vengeful jerk. In fact, as I type this sentence, I wonder if it would be in my best interest to simply bury this post. The downside with doing such a thing is that it would further closet an issue that many of us have faced, but not really spoken about in a public setting. So, while I provide a number of perhaps tedious examples, I’d like to remind you that I do this in order to shape the context of my points.
You Choose What Kind of Garden You’ll Plant
Reacting to a situation is just one part of the equation. The more important part relates to the construct you define online. Perhaps I’m being overly vague here; allow me to explain:
Every online community works around an underlying set of rules and conventions. They are established and shaped by the moderators of these communities, as well as the technologies and designs themselves. For example, comments on ideasonideas tend to be long and well-considered. I’ll take that as a complement, as I believe it’s a direct response to the nature of these posts. On the other hand, comments on YouTube are, for the most part, worthless. Something about a largely anonymous setting, based on videos (which convey a lot of data, but often not much real discourse) results in short, ill-articulated, and often hurtful jabs between users.
As we move from one community to the next, we see examples that continue to reinforce this theory. You know most of your friends on Facebook, so, they tend to act in a polite and reasonable manner—like your real friends. Makes sense, right? On the other hand, 140 characters are insufficient for achieving much real dialogue. This leaves Twitter filled with a few pithy comments, and a great many trying (unsuccessfully) to be so.
Meanwhile, there’s one of my favorite blogs, TechCrunch. It initially began with Michael’s often terse and deliberately antagonizing style (the blog benefitted from this a great deal). Even with their recent integration of Facebook comments, that community still feels hostile when one reads through the comment section. Mike’s approach was like an over-reliance on fertilizer: it grew his garden up in a hurry, but it came at a substantial price.
Accept It as a Prerequisite to Intense Dialogue
When we ran the “Creative Within” campaign, I freaked out a little. Although I had hoped we’d be able to generate a little buzz, I was overwhelmed by the response. Some thought it was great, others felt we were juvenile brats. Meanwhile, one of our competitors sent the ads out to as many clients as they could, asking: “Would you work with these guys?” (For what it’s worth, I kind of liked that last part. In a way, they were unwittingly helping us advertise.)
At the time, I was really nervous. As much as I’d like to pretend that what others say has no bearing on me, I remain highly sensitive to such things. As years passed, I learned a few things from that exercise, and others that have followed. The main takeaway from all of this: in business, people talking—for whatever reason—is often a good thing.
Actually, it’s the opposite of this situation that’s the problem. If you’re a communicator who can’t get others to talk, you’re in real trouble. When you go out on a limb, there may be some uncomfortable moments. I think it’s best if you learn to see this as part of the deal.